Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

For her new cabaret show at Joe’s Pub, entitled The Ginger Snapped, we find a manic Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show is their first to feature almost entirely new music, all from her new album of the same name.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished, just in a very different way.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). Both Monsoon and Scales first appear in medical smocks that recall Tim Curry in Rocky Horror. Very shortly, though, Jinkx strips down to a black one-piece lace foundation garment, which she later covers with a silky black dressing gown trimmed with feathers and rhinestones. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface.

For the Joe’s Pub calendar, click here.

To keep up with Jinkx, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Stories By Heart

I had a deeply personal reaction to Stories by Heart. It’s above all John Lithgow’s love letter to his father, and the love of storytelling that his father conveyed to him. About half of it is Lithgow talking about those issues, and the other half is Lithgow performing literary short stories that his father read him as a child. My parents were also great tellers of great stories, so I strongly identify; for me it was H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis, for Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow’s love for his father is palpable in this piece, and I found that particularly moving.

The Ring Lardner story “Haircut” throws a bit of a curve: it starts out as a tale of charming small town life which Lithgow himself freely admits “slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is pure literary comfort food in which the titular Fred, a loopy English Lord, has a madcap adventure that starts by simply trying to get out of the rain.

Lithgow is marvelously specific in the physicality he gives these short stories, realistically pantomiming an early 20th Century “two bit” shave-and-a-haircut in the Lardner. By the same token, he gives a ridiculously stylized personality to all of the crazy people (and parrots) we encounter in the Wodehouse.

This production is lively and vivacious, due in equal parts to Lithgow’s native theatrical intelligence and Daniel Sullivan’s canny direction. Stories by Heart is thoroughly sincere and sentimental, which I find very refreshing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

The laughs come fast and furious in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, writer / performer Drew Droege’s monologue that bristles against the mainstreaming of gays. The character Droege portrays, Gerry, is a flashy and colorful sort, arriving at a pool party ahead of the wedding of his old friend Josh to the more conservative Brennan (we never meet any of these characters, we just hear Gerry’s opinion of them).

The wedding invitation says, “Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns,” which really steams Gerry. The play’s strongest thematic point is that gay marriage should not turn the bright rainbow of gay culture into something a whole lot more beige. Both Gerry and Droege have a stand-up comedian’s sense of how to most gleefully go for the jugular, which provides much of the show’s humor. Michael Urie, currently starring in the marvelous Off-Broadway revival of Torch Song, directs here with an assured hand, keeping things crisp and tight.

Gerry is “a hot mess,” and “a lot” for sure, but again the play’s point is being “a lot” should be celebrated, and “a hot mess” at least forgiven. This though, is where I have a quibble with the play. Gerry is finally a bit too self-pitying and cruel to make that point stick. If we are going to make the argument that the world needs our bright and bold gay color, wouldn’t it be better to have someone who exhausts you with their exuberance rather than their neediness and bitchiness? More Rip Taylor and less Paul Lynde I guess I’m saying.

It’s still largely a fun gay old time, however. Drew Droege has a wonderful way with witty one-liners, both writing them and delivering them. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: M. Butterfly

I’ve been told that this play revisal is much cooler and more cerebral than the original 1988 Broadway production, and you know what, I’m totally okay with that. Playwright David Henry Hwang is dealing with some very complex issues in M. Butterfly, and I’m more interested in exploring those with him than getting caught up in his hapless leading character’s emotional journey.

M. Butterfly, inspired by historical events, follows married French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owens) as he falls in love with jīngjù (aka “Beijing opera”) performer Song Liling (Jin Ha). Hwang has substantially revised his script, so that we learn that Song Liling is actually a man much earlier in the game. That narrative tension removed, it is much easier to follow the complicated turns that the forward rush of history forces on Gallimard and Liling’s relationship.

Director Julie Taymor, known for her use of spectacle to tell stories, here puts a greater emphasis on acting, to very good effect, underlining how much politics is very, very personal. As a matter of fact, when she uses spectacle in this production, she falters. The set is made up of moving panels – put simply, there are too many of them and they are too automated. Their lack of smooth functioning ends up being a major distraction. The spectacle that does work as it should is choreographer Ma Cong’s marvelous evocations of jīngjù and yàngbǎnxì (Maoist Revolutionary Operas).

The most outstanding thing in the production is Jin Ha’s performance as Song. He is every bit the character conjured by Hwang’s revisions, all steel and chrome under the velvet and lace, and all longing and confusion even further down. Clive Owens is such a fine actor that you lose sight of his matinee idol looks and really invest in him as the socially awkward Gallimard. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

CD Review Roundup

Jessica Molaskey – Portraits of Joni

When I popped this CD in my computer to import it to iTunes, it offered the genre “Pop.” Well, Joni Mitchell, the object of tribute on Portraits of Joni, aimed at making pop music for exactly one album, her much-loved Court and Spark. Otherwise, her musical polestars were always folk and jazz. And here, Jessica Molaskey takes Joni’s jazziest impulses and turns them way up. Molaskey has been performing with her husband guitarist John Pizzarelli for a very long time, and has become in the process an integral part of the jazz “royal family” that is the Pizzarellis. No, iTunes, this is definitely “Jazz!” And first-class jazz at that, with perhaps the most remarkable moment being a mashup of Mitchell’s earliest song masterpiece “Circle Game” with John singing snippets of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March.” Highly recommended.

To purchase, click here.

War Paint (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows – it’s pretty darn good. War Paint follows the rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for much of the 20th Century. The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Of course, the main draw is hearing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are exquisitely tailored for their talents. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

Holiday Inn (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

This stage adaptation of the classic movie combines Irving Berlin songs with heart and smarts, and that makes me happy. The book of this version had some annoying minor plot holes, but you don’t get that on the cast recording, which is pure Berlin bliss. Big dance number “Shaking The Blues Away” was a highlight in the production, and the recording successfully captures the arrangement’s bristling high energy. A musical glow emanates from the warm chemistry between leads Bryce Pinkham and Lora Lee Gayer. Corbin Bleu adds great energy in a supporting role. As reimagined properties by Great American Songbook writers go, this one’s above average, and even more fun on disc than it was on the stage. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Rita Wilson

This lady is right in the middle of a sound that has run through the blood of Los Angeles since two midwestern boys – Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark – met while gigging in L. A. in 1964, and formed the group Jet Set, later to become the Byrds when they added native Los Angeleans David Crosby and Chris Hillman. The Eagles perfected the sound in the the 1970s, and it has continued to be hugely influential. A native Los Angelean herself, Rita Wilson most resembles – in both her singing and her songwriting – Sheryl Crow, a singer / songwriter heavily influenced by the Eagles.

In the evening’s first song, from her self-titled first album, is “Along for the Ride” Wilson invites the the audience to “Roll the windows down / Come along for the ride.” Wilson is a fine, powerful singer in the folk and country inflected L. A. Tradition, and her band are highly polished professionals.

A handful of songs come from her self-titled 2015 album, but the bulk of the evening are new songs that presumably will be on her new album, forthcoming in the new year. The most memorable ones are ode to jealousy “New Girl,” the mildy trashy dive bar anthem “Pay Me in Wine,” and the attitude-serving “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” All point to increasing songwriting strength from this long-time actor, just recently turned singer /songwriter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.